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Fossil DNA illuminates life

Ancient Greenland was green. New Danish research has shown that it was covered in conifer forest and, like southern Sweden today, had a relatively mild climate. Eske Willerslev, a professor at Copenhagen University, has analysed the worlds oldest DNA, preserved under the kilometre-thick icecap. The DNA is likely close to half a million years old, and the research is painting a picture which is overturning all previous assumptions about biological life and the climate in Greenland. The results have just been published in the prestigious scientific journal Science.

Ten percent of the Earths surface has been covered with ice for thousands of years. No one knows what lies beneath the kilometre-deep icecaps. These are the earths unknown and unexplored regions. But some have begun the exploration. Several projects under Danish leadership have been drilling through the icecap on Greenland, and collected complete columns of ice all the way from the top to the bottom. The ice has annual layers and is a frozen archive of the worlds climate.

I wonder, if there could also be DNA down there, thought Eske Willerslev, who is the worlds leading expert in extracting DNA from organisms buried in permafrost. His thinking was that perhaps he could reconstruct the environment of the past.

Ice-core samples of ancient sediment

The icecap itself is comprised of pure ice, but the lower sections are mixed with mud from the bottom, and it was this mud that Eske Willerslev wanted to research. He got base layer samples from three drillings; DYE-3 drilling in the southern part of Greenland, the GRIP drilling in the middle of the Greenlandic ice sheet, and for the third core base layer sample he used the John Evans glacier in Canada.

The Canadian glacier is only a few thousand years old, and samples from it were used to test the method. From the base layer samples of the ice he found DNA from three of the four most common plants which
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Contact: Gertie Skaarup
skaarup@nbi.dk
453-532-5320
University of Copenhagen
5-Jul-2007


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